Petr Jašek: My ISIS cellmates threatened to waterboard me
Petr Jašek has experienced horrors many of us could scarcely imagine. A Christian missionary, he was subjected to escalating humiliation and violence when placed in a cell with prisoners from ISIS in Sudan, where he was charged with espionage for carrying out undercover work with church group Voices of the Martyrs. Jašek has now detailed his chilling experiences in the book Imprisoned with ISIS. When we spoke he outlined his activities prior to his arrest.
“In 2002 I started to work full-time for our sister organisation [to his Help to the Persecuted Church/Pomoc pronásledované církvi] the Voice of the Martyrs in the United States.
“After that I had the great privilege to meet many more Christians who not only lost material things – like their houses being looted or burned out, or their cars being stolen or destroyed – but who have also lost their beloved ones, their family members.
“But I would say that I had a special privilege to meet people whom I consider heroes of faith: those who have lost parts of their own bodies, because they didn’t want to renounce their Christian faith.
“This is quite typical in Muslim countries, where these extremists follow the statement of their founder Mohamed, written in the book of Hadith, that they are supposed to cut off the left arm and right leg of those infidels that do not want to become Muslims.
“I had this privilege to sit like I’m sitting with you, opposite at a table, with these people and while I was interviewing them I noticed that they were missing their left arm or right leg, or both.
“And I can tell you that my personal faith got deeply encouraged through their testimonies.”
In late 2015 you were arrested in Sudan, where you were recording the testimony of a Christian man called Ali, who had been severely mistreated. How were you planning to use the information from him?
“One of the typical activities that the Voice of the Martyrs is doing is providing medical care for those who have been injured because of their faith.
“He was an example. He was the son of a sheik, a Muslim, and for such people it is a capital crime – there is a death penalty – for abandoning the Muslim faith.
“He was supposed to be killed, but he survived. A firebomb exploded in his hands and he needed medical care.
“You see these extremists shooting in the air and shouting, Allahu Akbar – and I saw that live, in this cell, right after I said that 129 people got killed in Paris.”
“I was overseeing similar cases in other African countries, or Central Asian or Middle East countries, where we have documented injuries and then tried to find out whether it is possible inside the country, or in a neighbouring country, to help them with their health – or to bring in specialised doctors from overseas, who usually do it as a voluntary activity.
“I brought finances for his treatment and the good thing was that before I was arrested the money was already given to the hospital – at least 75 percent of that was already given to the hospital where he was treated later on.”
You were placed in a cell with ISIS prisoners. These men didn’t have any access to news and you told them what had happened in Paris not long previously, with the attacks centred on the Bataclan. How did they respond to that?
“It was a shock, you know. When I said that 129 people got killed, their reaction was something that I had seen earlier on television, when there was any attack on a Western embassy or on Israel.
“You see these extremists shooting in the air and shouting, Allahu Akbar – and I saw that live, in this cell, right after I said that 129 people got killed.
“That was such a shock for me that I stopped telling them any more news.
“I knew from the first day what kind of fellow prisoners’ company I was in.”
You say also in your book that initially they treated you OK, but then things changed and their treatment of you got very aggressive.
“I think they at first wanted to get as much information from me as possible.
“I was very cautious, knowing that they were extremists. But I thought it was more like a tactic of the interrogators – that they wanted to get information through my fellow prisoners, which is quite usual in almost all countries with totalitarian regimes.
“But that was for a very short time and they started to limit my freedom of movement in this crowded cell. It was designed for one prisoner but there were seven of us.
“Later on they stopped calling me by name. They called me by a word that means filthy pig in Arabic.
“Then they started to physically attack me – beating me in the face, kicking me or also then using a wooden stick.
“At that time, I could say, I experienced something like being at the bottom of my physical as well as emotional strength.
“Just to document what kind of people they were, they were very young and highly educated: they had university diplomas also from European universities and were doctors, pharmacists, engineers, IT specialists.
“They were from various countries and one of them was a Libyan guy who was sent by his father when he was just 12 to be a personal bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. He was the hero in their eyes.
“He was called the Man of the Sword, and I thought it was because he had been the bodyguard of Osama.
“They stopped calling me by name. Then they started to physically attack me – beating me in the face, kicking me or also then using a wooden stick.”
“But later on, when he was transferred to the neighbouring cell, I found out the true reason he was called the Man of the Sword.
“He was one of those murderers who beheaded 20 Coptic Christians and one African Christian on the Libyan shore in February 2015.
“Several months later he shared a cell with me, also threatening my life. Once he took a very strong fishing line out of his pocket and was showing other ISIS members how he can kill a person within a few seconds with this fishing line.
“These people were also questioning my faith. I was not supposed to start any conversation unless I was asked.
“But that was my moment to, you know, share the Christian faith with them, and also share some stories of other brave and bold Christians.
“But again their reaction was absolutely shocking. I shared one story of a Nigerian lady who witnessed her husband being decapitated in front of her and also had her own throat cut.
“When I said that – thinking that they may be kind of embarrassed when I show them what their colleagues are doing – they started to laugh and celebrated again by shouting Allahu Akbar.
“Then I realised that in the moment when you would expect at least a minimum human sympathy, they were just shouting Allahu Akbar and celebrating the death of another infidel.
“That was shocking, but yet, I would say, I’ve also seen their human side – when they were on their knees and crying and praying, when they could not fall asleep at night.
“I think that helped me. You know, Christianity is actually the only religion that is teaching its followers to love their enemies. This is following Christ’s words from Mathew 5:44: But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
“I think in some situations the strength that gives you, the fact that you can turn your other cheek or not retaliate, is not from you, it’s from God.
“And that’s something I have experienced and I could also share the good news with them, what the basis of Christian faith is, and they were listening.
“Even though the fact that I never retaliated brought them even to be more furious and to invent new ways of torture. And the final one was supposed to be waterboarding.”
Luckily that didn’t happen in the end and you were transferred to a different prison – you went through I think four or five in total. You were literally in fear of your life, you were potentially looking at life in prison, you were living in filth and you saw unspeakable things, including people being placed up to their necks in human excrement. How did all these terrible things impact you?
“I would say that I first I was also traumatised. I would not say that wasn’t the case.
“I had mornings when I was in solitary confinement – I was in two of them, actually – and I was suffering with some kind of morning depression and sadness.
“I had to walk around, just to remind myself that Jesus Christ is my joy, he’s my peace, until it became a reality.
“And there were moments when I was with the ISIS people when I was more concerned about my mental health than my life.
“That came later. I lost 55 pounds, or 25 kilos, in the first three months. Within the first month I lost nearly half of my blood through internal bleeding.
“And being in such a situation – definitely, this was the hardest time.
“But later on you get used to the terrible conditions and I can say that being transferred from one prison to the next one was always a move from bad to even worse.
“Later on, when he was transferred to the neighbouring cell, I found out the true reason he was called the Man of the Sword. He was one of those murderers who beheaded 20 Coptic Christians and one African Christian on the Libyan shore in 2015.”
“In all that I would say that prayer – and not only my prayer, but also the prayers of other Christians for me – gave me strength.”
Eventually, after 445 days locked up, you were found guilty of all the charges against you, including treason and espionage, and sentenced to life in prison. Then you got a presidential pardon, which the Czech government had lobbied to secure for you. What was the feeling like when you got onto that plane, and especially when they closed the doors on the plane, and you were flying out of Khartoum?
“Definitely a big relief.
“Of course I was well taken care of by the doctors who came from the Czech Republic. They were monitoring my health, giving me some fluids, because I was dehydrated.
“There were always two Sudanese security guys watching me and when they saw all the hassle, all the care that the Czechs were providing for me, I’m sure that they became absolutely convinced that I must have been a spy.
“Because they would normally never understand that a foreign country, a democratic country, can really provide good care.
“I even managed to call my wife from the toilet at the airport, which the guys from the Czech intelligence were not really happy with.
“I could see from their reaction that until the plane literally takes off and leaves Sudanese airspace everything could go wrong again.
“So it was a big relief at that time.”
Your family must have been extremely worried, to a level that I can’t even imagine. The same also must have been the case for your community. Do you still do dangerous activities, or take the kinds of risks that you took in the past?
“I don’t right now.
“People often ask me if I plan to go to Sudan again. I usually say no, for several reasons.
“Maybe I wouldn’t get a visa. Because of the unwanted publicity, I would say that most countries which have a totalitarian system would be closed to me, because they will never give me a visa.
“I lost 55 pounds, or 25 kilos, in the first three months. Within the first month I lost nearly half of my blood through internal bleeding.”
“And even if they would give me a visa, it could be a trap.
“I’m not afraid to go. I always say that I will go anywhere where the Lord Jesus will open the door for me.
“So far I have visited some countries where Christians are persecuted. I don’t want to say it in public, because this is something which is part of my work.
“But I feel like I am now serving as a bridge, a bridge of fellowship between those persecuted Christians and those who are still living in free countries.
“I say ‘still’ because I always encourage people with the words that the apostle Paul says in Second Timothy 3:12 – that everyone who wants to live a godly live in Christ Jesus should expect persecution.
“And that’s something that we are seeing now in more and more countries.
“Persecution is not something unusual for Christians. Persecution is actually, based on the Bible, an essential part of a Christian life.
“So I do travel, but mainly now to share my story and encourage people to pray for our brothers and sisters who are still experiencing beatings, torture, imprisonment and often their being martyred.”